It took 55 years for this wrong to be made right.
In 1959, Alva Earley was banned from participating in commencement ceremonies at Galesburg High School in Galesburg, Illinois. The reason? He said he attended a picnic held by the NAACP at a park that was "unofficially off-limits to black people." He was warned by a school administrator to stay away or face the consequences, which turned out to involve being banned from graduation and having two universities rescind their acceptance letters. "He was stunned," Louise Wilder, a longtime friend, told the Chicago Tribune. "His parents weren't the type to stand up for him. He had no way to fight back. It was devastating to see."
It wound up that it was his friends who stood up for him, more than half a century later. Earley says he didn't talk about the incident much because it was so upsetting, but during a recent reunion he mentioned it to former classmates, who were outraged. They asked the school district's current superintendent to give Earley the diploma he earned, and on Friday, a graduation ceremony was held. "Alva deserved it," friend Lowell Peterson said. "When people have been mistreated, we owe it to them to address the injustice. This is just a little chance to make something right."
Even without his diploma, Earley earned a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law and worked for the state of Illinois for more than 20 years, retiring in 2001. The crowd of 100 people at his late graduation knew what he overcame to get there, and Earley was deeply touched by the way his classmates fought for him so many years after the fact.
"This isn't a story about Alva Earley's diploma," he said. "This is about people standing up and doing the right thing."